Real estate firms pitch in to charitable causes

David Briggs
West Marin Real Estate donated $1,000 to the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin this month, part of a program in which they donate 3 percent of each home sale commission toward a nonprofit of the buyer's choice.   

Real estate agents in West Marin are donating a percentage of their commission fees to nonprofits in an attempt to offset the region’s rising inequalities, which housing advocates credit in part to the rise of new homeowners’ short-term rentals. 

Brenda Balanda, owner of Marin Sunshine Realty, said she started her initiative when she set up shop in Point Reyes Station a decade ago. “It seemed like the appropriate thing to do, a way to give to local nonprofits,” she said. “I was so happy to be here, and I loved the community. People were volunteering, supporting all these things, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do it.’”

Last month, Jenny Wread, a real estate agent at West Marin Real Estate, was reviewing the company’s end-of-year reports when she began to consider the idea. She said it “just felt like this was an important thing to do.”

“There’s a housing crisis and we work in real estate,” Ms. Wread said. “Although I don’t think real estate is the cause or the solution to this much more complex economic issue, I do think we as Realtors should do what we can to help, and one way to do that is to give back to our local community.” 

Starting this year, her clients will be able to pick any local charity, and the company will donate three percent of the agent’s commission to the organization. Generally, Ms. Wread said, an agent’s commission is between two and six percent of a transaction. 

The company, which owner Robert Cardwell has operated for 20 years, made two donations retroactively. This month, the group donated $1,000 to the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin in honor of a 2017 sale in Point Reyes Station. It donated $500 to Halleck Creek Ranch to honor a sale in Inverness last October. 

Other real estate companies said that although they have no donation program, they make an effort to donate to local nonprofits, especially ones that tackle housing such as CLAM and the Bolinas Community Land Trust. Sarah Kowalczyk, a partner at McGuire Real Estate, said the lump-sum donations she makes have the potential to be larger than a set percentage of a commission.

Ms. Balanda said she has tweaked her program over time. When she first began, clients could select the recipient and give 20 percent of her commission. When the controversy over Drake’s Bay Oyster Company broke out in 2007, however, she was upset that the Environmental Action Committee was able to use thousands of dollars from her business to advocate for the company’s closure—a cause she opposed. 

As a result, Ms. Balanda ended the donation program, but a few months ago she started it up again—with some changes. Now she donates 10 percent of her commission, and clients can choose from a list of five charities: West Marin Community Services, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, the Dance Palace Community Center, CLAM and KWMR. “I trust them,” she said of the groups. “They’re not going to do some crazy stuff. I don’t want to just give my money away to be used in a way that I think is horrible.” 

Over the many years Ms. Balanda has spent selling homes in West Marin, she said she has seen the real estate market become “a different world.” “The people that used to come were people that loved this place, had been coming for years, would buy their weekend home with the intention to retire here. But [new buyers] are all focused on the Airbnb. It has to be good for renting with Airbnb, having a second unit perfect for Airbnb.” 

While West Marin has always been a place of summer and weekend homes, relatively blue-collar families used to be able to afford to make their lives here as well, local historian Dewey Livingston said. The new focus on short-term rentals has worried many who fear the impacts of a limited supply of homes for locals and workers. 

Ms. Wread, who joined West Marin Real Estate two years ago after her husband got a job in the area, has seen a discrepancy between her new clients and those she worked with as a realtor in the East Bay. In Oakland and Berkeley, she said, most home-buyers she represented were young families. “You don’t see that here because entry price is so high,” she said. Buyers in West Marin are usually in the market for “second or third homes, or [are] people [who] have purchased homes before and might have a significant down payment from selling another house, or are just older and wealthier.” 

In East Oakland, Ms. Wread said, it is possible to buy a house for under $500,000. “It would not be a mansion, or on the best street, but it’s a house a family can move into,” she said. “That’s not the case here. A lot of families will move into a two-bedroom, one bathroom and deal—and hope to buy something bigger later. You aren’t going to find that here: there’s just not a diversity of home sizes; everything’s pretty big and there’s not a lot of it.” 

Anyone looking to buy a home in West Marin, she said, would be lucky to get a home just under $1 million, and even so, “you’re going to need to throw some serious money into [it].” 

Both Ms. Wread and Ms. Balanda noted that the rising prices reflect the market around the country, and particularly the Bay Area. But while Ms. Balanda agreed the housing crunch in West Marin has gotten tighter, she said housing has always been tight. “People cry there’s no place to rent, rents are so high. It’s true, but back in the ’70s, there was no place to rent,” she recalled. “They’d live on boats in Marconi Cove because there was no place to live.” 

Although she knows her donations will not eradicate inequalities in the area, she feels they are a necessary part of living in and loving West Marin. “I’ve got to do my part for the community,” she said.